UALR to float idea to ease eStem ten­sions

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - EMILY WALKENHORST

Univer­sity of Arkansas at Lit­tle Rock lead­ers plan to ap­proach eStem Pub­lic Char­ter High School lead­ers this week with an­other idea for al­le­vi­at­ing lunchtime crowds at the univer­sity’s stu­dent cen­ter.

For a year and a half, eStem Pub­lic Char­ter Schools has op­er­ated a high school on the south end of the univer­sity’s cam­pus. School lead­ers have called it an “ex­per­i­ment” that they an­tic­i­pated would ben­e­fit the high school’s sci­ence, tech­nol­ogy, engi­neer­ing and math-ori­ented stu­dents.

But univer­sity lead­ers have ques­tioned whether their stu­dents are ben­e­fit­ing from the ar­range­ment.

Since the high school’s first se­mes­ter, there’s been ten­sion over the pres­ence of eStem stu­dents on the univer­sity’s cam­pus, and late last month univer­sity stu­dent lead­ers be­gan cir­cu­lat­ing a pe­ti­tion urg­ing UALR ad­min­is­tra­tors to ad­dress the sit­u­a­tion.

The prob­lems, univer­sity stu­dents say, in­clude a “high school at­mos­phere” on cam­pus. The pe­ti­tion had 1,200 sig­na­tures as of Wed­nes­day.

The high school stu­dents are con­fined to the high school and var­i­ous spots in UALR’s Don­aghey Stu­dent

Cen­ter, where they eat lunch.

UALR Chan­cel­lor An­drew Roger­son told the Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette on Fri­day af­ter­noon that he has an al­ter­nate site on cam­pus that he be­lieves could ac­com­mo­date eStem’s three lunchtime ro­ta­tions of roughly 175 stu­dents.

He de­clined to name the site, say­ing he had yet to men­tion the sug­ges­tion to stu­dents or reach an agree­ment with eStem of­fi­cials on us­ing it. It is near the eStem school, Roger­son said, adding that it would not need to be ren­o­vated, is not an en­tire build­ing and is not empty.

Records re­quests for com­mu­ni­ca­tions with eStem of­fi­cials re­gard­ing the high school’s cam­pus did not yield any doc­u­ments about other build­ings. Of­fi­cials re­cently scrapped hopes of ren­o­vat­ing Univer­sity Plaza, the univer­sity-owned shop­ping cen­ter on the south part of the cam­pus, as a place for eStem stu­dents to eat lunches, af­ter the of­fi­cials learned what it would cost to mod­ify the site to meet fire codes.

Af­ter say­ing just more than a week ago that he be­lieved the ar­range­ment be­tween the univer­sity and eStem was “fail­ing in its cur­rent form,” Roger­son said Fri­day that he was op­ti­mistic about reach­ing a short-term agree­ment to ac­com­mo­date eStem stu­dents for lunchtime and af­ter school for the next two

school years.

“The cam­pus knows we are try­ing to find a place to put them, which is go­ing to keep them [eStem stu­dents] out of the stu­dent cen­ter,” Roger­son said. “And that’s for the ben­e­fit of both in­sti­tu­tions. It’s not that we’re try­ing to get rid of eStem. It’s just too many peo­ple try­ing to eat in a fa­cil­ity that can­not han­dle my stu­dents and their stu­dents.”

John Ba­con, chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of eStem Pub­lic Char­ter Schools, could not be reached by email or phone Fri­day.

Find­ing space on cam­pus for the high school stu­dents co­in­cides with en­roll­ment drops at the univer­sity, which is at­tempt­ing to boost its en­roll­ment to 15,000 stu­dents by 2022.

UALR’s en­roll­ment was 10,525 stu­dents last fall, down 15 per­cent from five years ear­lier. As of Oct. 1, eStem had 506 stu­dents en­rolled.

Records show that Roger­son be­lieved in De­cem­ber 2017 that the schools’ lead­ers were “close to iron­ing out the is­sues” of hav­ing the high school stu­dents on the univer­sity cam­pus and po­ten­tially in more univer­sity build­ings. He sug­gested cre­at­ing a task force to study how to make the ar­range­ment be­tween the schools mu­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial, and a loose form of that task force has met pe­ri­od­i­cally since then to dis­cuss that, Roger­son said.

The eStem stu­dents eat in open ar­eas of the Don­aghey

Stu­dent Cen­ter, in­clud­ing near out­side food ven­dors and sets of ta­bles in other wings of the stu­dent cen­ter.

Agree­ments have stip­u­lated that the eStem stu­dents are per­mit­ted to use ad­di­tional cam­pus fa­cil­i­ties, but eStem ad­min­is­tra­tors said there aren’t enough high school staff mem­bers to su­per­vise more ar­eas than the din­ing spots. The eStem stu­dents do not ac­cess other fa­cil­i­ties and do not be­lieve they are al­lowed to, ad­min­is­tra­tors said.

When ap­proached, some eStem stu­dents said they have lit­tle in­ter­ac­tion with univer­sity stu­dents. They said they don’t feel that they’re a bother and that the univer­sity stu­dents aren’t a bother, ei­ther. Some younger high school­ers can be loud and have less self-con­trol, they said, and they un­der­stood how that could an­noy some peo­ple.

Univer­sity stu­dents said the pres­ence of eStem stu­dents dis­rupts the col­le­giate at­mos­phere on cam­pus. But the sit­u­a­tion is bet­ter this year than pre­vi­ously, they said, now that the high school stu­dents aren’t us­ing the univer­sity stu­dents’ din­ing hall.

Univer­sity stu­dents need a des­ig­nated spot to “chill” now that the stu­dent cen­ter is full for a few hours each day, they said.

“Our word doesn’t mean much, any­way,” said Christo­pher Ben­ton, a 23-year-old civil and con­struc­tion engi­neer­ing ma­jor. The char­ter school is al­ready built, he said.

Un­der the lease agree­ment, the an­nual rent of $1 is due to the univer­sity on or be­fore Sept. 1.

The term of the lease agree­ment is un­clear. At the time of the agree­ment in

2016, the par­ties agreed to a 30-year term with four con­sec­u­tive five-year re­newal op­tions. The doc­u­ment states that it “shall be for an ini­tial pe­riod of thirty (30) years … and end­ing on Au­gust 31, 2036.” A 30-year agree­ment would end in 2046.

As the lessor in the agree­ment, the univer­sity is re­spon­si­ble for wa­ter, sewer taxes, elec­tric­ity, gas and all other util­i­ties con­sumed on the prop­erty, as well as tele­phone, ca­ble and In­ter­net ac­cess.

The univer­sity agreed to con­struc­tion and ren­o­va­tions on the prop­erty and to keep and main­tain the prop­erty.

The Wal­ton Fam­ily Foun­da­tion of Ben­tonville is a party to the lease agree­ment. The foun­da­tion com­mit­ted to a non-in­ter­est-bear­ing loan to the char­ter school or­ga­ni­za­tion of up to $11.4 mil­lion for the new con­struc­tion and ren­o­va­tions to Lar­son and Ross halls. If eStem va­cates the prop­erty, the Wal­ton Fam­ily Foun­da­tion has a year to find an­other ten­ant. Af­ter a year, the foun­da­tion can as­sume the lease.

The ter­mi­na­tion pro­vi­sion of the lease agree­ment — sub­ject to the rights of the Wal­ton foun­da­tion — stip­u­lates that eStem or a suc­ces­sor ten­ant may ter­mi­nate the lease at any time with 30 days’ writ­ten no­tice.

Or the univer­sity board of trustees may ter­mi­nate the lease upon de­fault, in which case eStem or a suc­ces­sor ten­ant would have no fur­ther rights or obli­ga­tions un­der the lease, and all fa­cil­i­ties and im­prove­ments would be­come the sole prop­erty of the univer­sity board of trustees.

In­for­ma­tion for this ar­ti­cle was con­trib­uted by Cyn­thia How­ell of the

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